PARK CITY, Utah (AFP) ― “Family Portrait in Black and White” has brought the story of a woman raising 16 black orphans in Ukraine, an overwhelmingly white and often racist society, to the Sundance film festival.
The searing film by Julia Ivanova, a Russian filmmaker based in Canada, is up for the documentary grand prize at the independent film festival here in the western U.S. mountains of Utah, which closes on Sunday.
Set in Sumy, a town of 300,000 inhabitants in northeast Ukraine, the film follows Olga Nenya, who has adopted 16 black orphans in a country that is 99.9 percent white.
They are the children of Ukrainians and African students, abandoned by their mothers because of the stigma, inherited from Soviet times, against interracial relationships and children of mixed blood.
“(Olga) is a person who has absolutely zero percent racism in herself. And she’s a fighter in her way, on a small level,” Ivanova told AFP.
The film makes clear, however, that she’s no Mother Theresa: the strict disciplinarian runs the family like a military platoon inside their home, donated by a British charity.
“When she is in the room, you immediately feel that she is strong and you follow her direction,” Ivanova says.
“The slogan in the family is: ‘There is no place for democracy in a family with so many children’. But it’s her presence that makes everything work. Which means also that she cannot leave the house, because if she does, everything falls apart.”
Many of the children could be the subjects of their own films: there is Sashka, a bully and natural leader; the intelligent Kiril, who goes by the name “Mr. President;” and Roman, who dreams of being a famous footballer.
The film follows the children as they come of age in a racist Ukraine, embodied at one point by a skinhead march through the town.
The children discover a more tolerant atmosphere during summers visiting with different families in France and Italy ― but Olga refuses to allow the families to adopt the kids, and is determined to raise them as proud Ukrainians.
“Olga doesn’t see how bad it is for these children because she has never traveled abroad, she has never seen other societies. But these children have. They have a knowledge of the world that she doesn’t have,” Ivanova says.
“When they are small, their love for their mother is a strong emotion, but when they become teenagers and have the ability to analyze more, even the most patriotic of the children look for ways to leave Ukraine.”
“Nobody wants to be a second-class citizen,” she says.
In this most unlikely of families, Olga struggles with the pain of letting go, a condition familiar to any parent who has dropped off a teenager at college or given her away at a wedding.
“With Olga I discovered how much contradictions you can find in one single person. Loving somebody but cutting off all opportunities of the same person, controlling this person,” Ivanova said.
The film takes Ukrainian authorities to task, both for their failure to aid Olga and their feeble efforts to curtail racism.
Near the end of the film Ivanova tells the heartrending story of Andrei, one of Olga’s children who was taken by social services to a psychiatric hospital, where his treatment amounted to “torture.”
“Because he was an orphan, they could do whatever they wanted with him. I want to see this investigated and put this hospital on the spot,” she said.